Genie Tyburski is the Web Manager of The Virtual Chase: A Research Site for Legal Professionals.
The Web’s impact on information occasionally sparks controversy. Privacy advocates, for example, challenge existing public records laws that fail to address, or clearly allow, making personal data available via Web sites. More recently, Web access to information about sexual offenders incites debate.
In Oregon, several anonymous sex offenders and their families seek to pull the plug on a State Police Web site that intends to provide names, photographs, and other information about approximately 8,500 registered sex offenders in Oregon. While the site has the backing of the state legislature, the police voluntarily postponed its publication pending a court’s ruling.
In Tennessee, legislation enacted during 1997 mandated posting information from sex offender registries on the State's official home page. Later, the Middle District of Tennessee ruled "that the notification provisions of the Tennessee Sex Offender Registration Act violates the due process rights of the offender." Consequently, Tennessee no longer provides access to the registry via the Internet.
In Texas, a law that took effect a few weeks ago permits access to information about juvenile sex offenders. Already, a search of the Texas Department of Public Safety Sex Offender Database found names, addresses, dates of birth, and even shoe sizes for several registered juvenile sex offenders.
Currently, 12 states -- Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Virginia -- offer sex offender databases from Web sites hosted by official state servers. Alabama, California (presently offline), Indiana, and West Virginia provide such access through databases housed on other Web sites. Moreover, various law enforcement agencies as well as private citizens publish county or community listings. Most, if not all, are freely available regardless of the residence of the individual searching for information.
Researchers will find no uniformity amongst sex offender databases. Some, like those for Alaska, Connecticut, and Florida, provide photographs as well as physical descriptions, dates of birth, and details concerning the offense. Virginia provides both home and work addresses while Indiana offers only the city of residence.
Most of the databases permit zip code or name queries. Kansas allows searching by partial zip codes while Alaska and Delaware provide for street name or partial address queries and Indiana permits searching by social security number.
Non-statewide listings range from offering photographs, physical descriptions and last known addresses to providing only the names of registered sex offenders. The Cowlitz County Sheriff's Office in Kelso, Washington, for example, further flags photographs of registered sex offenders with "wanted" or "incarcerated" status.
To find a listing of offenders in a community for a state not offering Web access to its registry, first locate the county sheriff's or local police department's Web site. Discover these local law enforcement Web pages via their respective county or municipality Web sites. Find county or municipality sites with resources like State and Local Government on the Net.
Or conduct a search combining terms like the name of the community with "sex offender," "megan's law," "community notification," or "offender registry." For example, the query -- yuma sex offenders -- at Google finds a site that appears to be maintained by the Yuma, Arizona Police Department.